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For Stay-at-Home Dads, the Playground is as Clique-y as High School

Darrell Humphrey was at the playground with his two kids when two women approached him and asked that he leave the premises. “You’re making us feel uncomfortable,” one of the women told him. “Would you mind leaving the park?”

Stunned, the 34-year-old Humphrey quietly gathered his kids and left. “I wasn’t gonna do anything confrontational in front of the kids,” he remembers. “But I was really upset. I wasn’t sure what to do or what to say, so I just decided to leave.” He still isn’t quite sure why he was asked to leave. Perhaps the women thought he was a “creeper,” he says. But that doesn’t make much sense considering he was at the park playing with his own children. “And what was really frustrating was that their kids were playing with my kids,” he adds.

Humphrey’s story is extreme, but the scene he describes is an all-too-common one for stay-at-home dads such as himself. They report being shunned by the groups of moms that congregate and socialize at the park and playground each day during the workweek, despite showing up there every day.

“Sometimes, there are four and five moms all chit-chatting together. And obviously, I’m the odd man out because I’m the only guy there,” says Ryan Darcy, a 36-year-old stay-at-home father of three in Coventry, Connecticut. (Like most stay-at-home dads, he decided to raise the kids because his wife was earning more money than him.) “It’s not like I feel the back of my head burning from them staring at me. But I’m not willing to go over there and say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ unless my kid is playing with their kid.”

The same is true of Dave Sliozis, a stay-at-home dad in Los Angeles for the last two years. “I tend to think I’m a very warm person,” the 39-year-old says. “I can talk to a wall for hours. But a lot of the times, my conversations with the moms are short and superficial. It’s never anything more in-depth than, ‘Brady [Sliozis’ son] is really good at basketball. Have you ever thought about joining a league?’ It’s nothing that would lead to any kind of friendship.”

These kinds of stories are especially common online, where stay-at-home dads vent in Facebook groups about frequently getting the cold shoulder from stay-at-home moms — women who are ostensibly part of their same cohort.

“Being ostracized by stay-at-home moms in parks, malls and other areas where parents go with their children is one of the topics fathers frequently discuss in online spaces,” says Tawfiq Ammari, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, where he studies how fathers express themselves on social media. He cites one example where a father recalled a mother trying to break up a fight between his children because she assumed he couldn’t manage the situation.

The net effect is stay-at-home dads feeling unaccepted and unwelcome, when all they’re trying to do is actively parent their kids. “It’s very isolating, being a stay-at-home dad,” explains Sliozis. “A lot of these moms know each other from before childbirth. They do prenatal yoga. Then they start texting each other, and these friendships start. And they all share the war story of childbirth, so they expose themselves to each other emotionally. It’s hard for a dad to relate to that. So a lot of times on the playground, you’re at a disadvantage.”

Enduring gender stereotypes are hard to ignore. Humphrey speculates he was asked to leave the park because he lives in Charlotte, where social progress tends to lag behind the rest of the country, and where stay-at-home dads are especially unfamiliar. “Living in the Bible Belt, one of the biggest stereotypes is that the woman is supposed to stay home and raise the kids, and the man is supposed to the breadwinner,” Humphrey says.

As such, he can often sense the moms gossipping about him. “You just get that feeling that you know people are talking about you. At first when that happened, I’d almost always leave.” Since then, though, Humphrey has stood up to the moms, and while he’s not friends with them, they at least now tolerate his presence.

That backward Southern values are to blame is its own stereotype, though. Stay-at-home dads in ostensibly liberal cities say they experience similar skepticism from stay-at-home moms. Sliozis lives in L.A., for instance, where moms often unfairly associate him with some of the other oblivious fathers they see at the local park. “There are certain parks I won’t go to anymore, because I don’t want to be associated with the so-called ‘bad dads,’” he says. “These dads are on their cell phones while their kids are running around with Nerf guns, throwing dirt clods at other kids and riding their electric scooters through a bunch of crawling infants.”

These men are usually “evening dads,” Sliozis’ term for dads who only parent after the workday is done. When moms do see a father on the playground during the day, they often falsely believe it’s the rare “daddy’s day out” with the kids± — and not a full-time stay-at-home dad. “Why is a mom going to make friends with a dad who she thinks she’s going to see only once in her life?” asks Michael Jenks, a 39-year-old stay-at-home father in Anchorage, Alaska.

(The dads say they frequently receive the “daddy’s day out” comment when they take their kids grocery shopping. They’ll be in the grocery line, and an older woman — it’s almost always an older woman, Darcy says — working the register will make a comment about it being “dad’s day with the kids.” And the dads will have to correct the cashier. “It gets old, but I’ve learned to shake it off,” says Darcy. “It’s a generational thing.”)

Other times, the moms are wary that the men at the park will try to hit on them. At least, that’s what the dads assume the moms are thinking. “There’s still a stigma to a man trying to initiate a conversation with a woman in any format,” according to Sliozis.

This is largely why Jenks thinks fathers are being too sensitive when they complain about being left out on the playground. “I tell the guys on Facebook that their level of hurt feelings is ridiculous.” Often, he says, these dads aren’t making a concerted effort to introduce themselves to the moms they experience at the park. Jenks, though, has a unique perspective: “I worked predominantly with women [as an administrator for a gynecology practice before becoming a stay-at-home dad], so I understand why they don’t feel comfortable. As men, we often don’t have to think about security [when interacting with a stranger]. Women think, Who’s this solo guy, coming here without any friends? That’s why I’m sympathetic to the moms — a man at the playground is out of the norm. As much as we like to think society appreciates diversity, it still takes some time to adjust.”

Whatever the case, the dads have turned to each other for company. Lance Somerfeld, a 44-year-old stay-at-home dad on the Upper East Side, for example, started handing out business cards on the street advertising a dads meetup. “The menu of options for new moms is huge. There’s baby lamaze, baby massage, mom and me yoga. It was important for me to create this experience for dads because we were already behind the eight ball.” And so, he gathered his nearby dads for baseball games, museums, and of course, the park.

“There’s something about the chemistry you have when hanging out with a few other dads, and you don’t have to worry about certain conversations, such as breastfeeding,” Somerfeld says. “You know, it’s just a crew of guys.”

In 2013, Somerfeld formalized the organization as the City Dads Group, and it’s since grown to include chapters in 34 cities across the country.

“It’s nice to have a community with dads that you can go out with once in awhile, and clear your head,” Darcy says about the Dads Group chapter in Hartford he founded four years ago. “Before I had the Dads Group, I don’t even remember the last time I went out alone.”

The conversation at Jenks’ Dads Group in Alaska revolves around everything from math lessons, to preparing healthy meals, to the latest NFL game. More importantly, with the group, he and the other stay-at-home dads have been able to replicate the social circle they were once shut out of — only this one is exclusively for men. “You just relate better to guys,” says Jenks, a former Marine. “It’s awesome, because there’s another Marine vet in the group, and we hang out and talk about Marine stuff — you know, guy stuff.”